Saturday, June 28, 2008

To Hell and Back: Perface

Decent into the underworld (or hell) is one of the classic themes found throughout both mythological and religious stories the world over. Ancient in origin, tales of gods and heroes who venture into the land of the dead, typically on a rescue mission, probably date back to the otherworldly vision quests of Neolithic shamans who frequently delved into the netherworld in order to revive souls on the brink of death.

As a major mythological and religious motif, decent into the underworld (sometimes referred to as ‘the harrowing of hell’), can serve a variety of purposes. In Sumerian mythology the fertility goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld is used to explain the changing of the seasons. In Japan, however, the god Izanagi descends into the underworld in an attempt to rescue his wife Izanami who died in childbirth. Izanagi fails, as occasionally happens when one attempts to take back what Death has rightfully claimed, but his failure helps to create the sun, moon, and rain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had several wide ranging myths about journeys to the great below. The most famous, without a doubt, is the redemptive tale of the hero Hercules who descends to Hades in an attempt to capture Cerberus; the ultimate hound of hell. However, while Hercules’ tale maybe very serious – from an intentional stand point – the tale of boozer god Dionysus and clownish Xanthias’ journey to Hades to beg for the life of the (last good) playwright Euripides is intended to be (and was at the time) highly comedic.

Lastly there is the story of Jesus’ decent into hell which is recorded in both the New Testament and various apocryphal texts. Jesus’ journey to hell is intended as a spiritual allegory. Jesus travels there in order to liberate the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs who have been imprisoned by the devil; as a story it is essentially the Christian equivalent of the ‘no soldier left behind’ motto.

The following next four blog posts will deal with two different, yet strikingly similar, variations on this theme. One will be a retelling of the Greco-Roman legend of the musician Orpheus, who travels down to Hades in an attempt to reclaim the soul of his beloved wife Eurydice. The second tale comes from Hindu mythology and tells of the heroin Savitri’s journey to win back the soul of her husband Satyavan. Both stories have much in common, but also have major key differences. After the two tales have been told I will ask for reader’s input and will then post my thoughts on the matter. Until then prepare yourselves because Of Epic Proportions is going to hell.

Above: A heroic Jesus descends into the bowls of hell to win back the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs.

Source: The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K. Turner

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